The Constitution in the Courts: Law or Politics? / Edition 1

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In the modern period of American constitutional law—the period since the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racially segregated public schooling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954)—there has been a persistent and vigorous debate in the United States about whether the Court has merely been enforcing the Constitution or whether, instead, in the guise of enforcing the Constitution, the Court has really been usurping the legislative prerogative of making political choices about controversial issues. In this book, Professor Perry carefully disentangles and then thoughtfully addresses the various fundamental issues at the heart of the controversy: What is the argument for "judicial review"? What approach to constitutional interpretation should inform the practice of judicial review? How large or small a role should the Court play in bringing the interpreted Constitution to bear in resolving constitutional conflicts? To what extent are the Court's most controversial modern decisions—for example, decisions about racial segregation, discrimination based on sex, abortion, and homosexuality—sound; to what extent are they problematic? The Constitution in the Courts is a major contribution to one of the most fundamental controversies in modern American politics and law.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It is Perry's special grace to treat politics with a high dignity it deserves and rarely receives."—Commonweal
Kevin T. McGuire
Contemporary constitutional debate often pits two competing schools of thought against one another. The belief that, independent of practical political consideration, judicial policy making should flow from constitutional directives, on the one hand; the belief that, within the context of adjudication, courts can be sensitive to their role in the political community, on the other. Enter Michael Perry, who argues that this choice -- the choice between law and politics -- is a false dichotomy. In his book, THE CONSTITUTION IN THE COURTS, Professor Perry tries to disentangle the debate by arguing that judicial and political philosophy are by no means linked. To that end, he offers a spirited defense of originalism, and the result is an engaging, important book. The engine driving Perry's analysis is the assumption that one can systematically liberate a particular interpretive mode, namely, originalism, from political ideology. This is not easily accomplished, given that the tenor of the debate over originalism is invariably blended with conservative policy outcomes. The problem, according to Perry, is that originalism is generally confused with judicial minimalism, that is, the assumption that judges must not only resist making decisions based upon their own policy preferences but must also presume that challenged legislation, if rational, is constitutional. Proponents of judicial minimalism, he argues, may in fact be originalists, but originalism does not presuppose the minimalist conception. Emblematic of that concern, he consistently holds out the positions of Robert Bork, as articulated in his book THE TEMPTING OF AMERICA (1990), as evidence of this general misunderstanding of the originalist doctrine. Throughout the first half of the book, Perry largely devotes his attention to fairly abstract and complex notions of interpretive method. Of particular importance is his defense of originalism, which he offers in Chapter 3, asserting that "the Supreme Court may enforce as constitutional only directives represented by the text of the Constitution" (p. 31), and that the Court's obligation is to invalidate those actions that are inconsistent with those directives. Importantly, "[w]hat is authoritative, for originalism, is the directive the ratifiers understood a constitutional provision to communicate, the directive they meant to issue. That the ratifiers may not have believed that this or that practice (law, etc.) with which they were familiar violated a constitutional directive they were issuing -- even that they believed that the practice did not violate the directive -- is not determinative" (p. 43). Thus, the basic thrust of the argument, at least as I understand it, is that constitutional adjudication, while it must involve bringing the mandates of the ratifiers to bear, in no way assumes a modest judicial role in the resolution of such conflicts. This general proposition and its intricacies are teased out Page 147 follows: here, largely divorced from context. In the second half of the text, however, he invokes doctrine and applies his analysis to a range of issues, all of which are tethered to the Fourteenth Amendment. Originalism, it turns out, permits a fairly extensive reach for the Fourteenth Amendment. Indeed, in his careful review of the privileges and immunities, equal protection, and due process clauses, he offers a smart defense -- again, on originalist grounds -- of affirmative action, abortion, and prohibiting discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. He concludes that "the modern Court's Fourteenth Amendment work product has been, in the main, much more originalist than imperialist" (p. 191). One might argue, though, that the question is not whether these decisions are consistent with originalism but whether the Court, in making these decisions, has invoked the kind of rationale that Perry advocates. That the Court's decisions can be accounted for as originalist after the fact does not mean that they are illustrative of such an approach. This point, I would think, might be particularly crucial to someone like Bork, whose concern is so often focused on the authority for constitutional decisions (see, e.g., Bork 1990, 216-217). To his credit, Perry is appropriately cautious -- in fact, often overly cautious -- about his assertions throughout the analysis. Moreover, he seems consistently mindful of the reality that equally reasonable and faithful disciples of his brand of originalism may well come to different conclusions. There is, in his view, substantial leeway in specifying the indeterminacies of the Constitution. Having early in the book offered an evaluation of the power of judicial review, Perry, in his final chapter, proposes some prescriptive advice on the question of how to better ensure that the exercise of judicial review is responsive to popular sovereignty. First, capitalizing on the debate currently swirling around legislative term limits, he argues that it would be beneficial to impose similar term limits on the justices of the Supreme Court. The primary benefit is that it ensures more constant and contemporaneous political control over the direction of the Court's policy making. Whatever the theoretical appeal of eliminating life tenure for members of the Court, from a practical standpoint, the proposal is probably unnecessary. However fashionable advocacy for term limits may be, the steady rate of congressional turnover seriously debilitates the case for term limits (see, e.g., Hibbing 1991), and this applies with even greater force to the Court; even with life tenure, the justices tend not stay on the bench much longer than Perry prescribes (some ten to twelve years). Historically, the median length of service for the justices is fifteen years and four months. More importantly, the same figure for the ten most recently appointed justices -- excluding, of course, the justices currently on the Court -- is sixteen years and eleven months (see Epstein et al. 1994, 300-302). Second, he counsels a more radical change, suggesting that the United States emulate a version of the Canadian model, Page 148 follows: whereby Congress could override the Court on various matters of constitutional -- not merely statutory -- interpretation. To be sure, the idea that the Supreme Court might not be the final arbiter of the Constitution's meaning is foreign to our political culture. The proposal, he maintains, has the virtue of simply assuring that, while the Court is an important voice, it is not the last word on constitutional questions. Why the existing democratic process of formal constitutional amendment is insufficient for Perry's needs, however, is not clear. Still, such a proposal -- leaving aside its predetermined doom -- is a serious and thoughtful one and thus worth sincere discussion. Stylistically, the book does, from time to time, leave something to be desired. Indeed, in some passages Professor Perry presents his argument in nearly impenetrable prose. At one point in his discussion of equal protection, for instance, he notes, "That there is room for reasonable disagreement about the precise shape or contours of the bases section 1 [of the Fourteenth Amendment] was meant to prohibit does not mean that it is plausible to believe that the folks who gave us the Fourteenth Amendment meant section 1 to forbid the singling out of any group for worse treatment on certain prohibited bases except for the singling out of nonwhites or whites for worse treatment, which was meant to be prohibited whether or not the singling out was on any prohibited basis" (p. 157). Cryptography, I must confess, is not among my limited intellectual abilities; nor, I suspect, is it likely to be found in abundant supply among more able readers. Quite apart from that, the book also contains an alarming number of typographical errors, not the least of which is almost an entire page of footnotes (p. 262) which, so far as I can tell, reference nothing in the body of the text. I have no doubt that this book will enjoy a justifiably wide readership. Whether or not one is persuaded by Perry's analysis, the argument which the book offers certainly demonstrates the need for us to reevaluate our thinking about what it means to bring an original understanding to the Constitution. THE CONSTITUTION IN THE COURTS is a sober and stimulating invitation to consider originalism in much broader and more complex terms. REFERENCES: Robert H. Bork. 1990. THE TEMPTING OF AMERICA: THE POLITICAL SEDUCTION OF THE LAW. New York: The Free Press. Lee Epstein, Jeffrey A. Segal, Harold J. Spaeth, and Thomas G. Walker. 1993. THE SUPREME COURT COMPENDIUM: DATA, DECISIONS, AND DEVELOPMENTS. Washington: CQ Press. John R. Hibbing. 1993. "Careerism in Congress: For Better of for Worse?" In Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer. CONGRESS RECONSIDERED. Washington: CQ Press.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195104646
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 1/28/1996
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Table of Contents

1 Constitutional Adjudication: Law or Politics? 3
2 The Argument for Judicial Review 15
3 The Argument for the Originalist Approach to Judicial Review 28
4 Originalism Does Not Entail Minimalism, I: The Indeterminacy of History 54
5 Originalism Does Not Entail Minimalism, II: The Indeterminacy of Morality 70
6 Skepticism about Minimalism - and about Nonminimalism, Too 83
7 The Original Meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment 116
8 The Supreme Court and the Fourteenth Amendment, I: Equal Protection 136
9 The Supreme Court and the Fourteenth Amendment, II: Substantive Due Process 161
10 Constitutional Adjudication: Law and Politics 192
Notes 205
Index 269
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